LORD, BY THIS TIME HE STINKETH
“Jesus therefore again groaning in himself cometh to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it. 39Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days. Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?”
That was verses 38-39 in the Old King James Version of the Bible. Commissioned by King James I of England in 1609, the KJV was a translation full of errors from the Greek, which were perpetuated for 1000 years. King James’ English evolved into the 20th century, but the errors were not corrected until 1980, when a New KJV was produced directly from the Greek and Hebrew. It preserves the flowery Shakespearean lilt of the language in a closer rendition to the original. It will never be my first choice, but sometimes Old King James catches an image in a way that no other translation can. This is one of those times. Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days. A graphic description—no ambiguity about that.
Events in John’s Gospel are coming together in this amazing and powerful story of Jesus raising Lazarus who is dead. But, as Jesus says, this illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. Jesus raises Lazarus during Passover where the faithful gather to worship God who saved them from slavery. Now, through the overcoming of death itself, Passover is fulfilled and God will save his people from the slavery of sin and death through the lifting up of God’s Son. And all of that happens through a very human concern that the body of Lazarus is rotting and stinking.
Of course, part of the reason for the stench is Jesus’ tardiness in leaving for Bethany. He wants to make sure no one is mistaken about the nature of Lazarus’ condition. He is not euphemistically asleep. He is, as the mayor of Munchkin Land says of the Wicked Witch, morally, ethically, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead. And he’s not only merely dead. He’s really most sincerely dead. Lord, by this time he stinketh.
The raising of Lazarus is not a cheap trick designed to wow the wide-eyed or throw Jesus’ enemies off their game. It is not a manipulation of the real sorrow of sisters who loved their brother. It is a sign, that which points beyond itself to the glory of God the Father, that the people may come to believe. All of Jesus’ signs and wonders are for this purpose—the water into wine, the healing of the sick child in Cana, multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the walking on the water, the healing of the blind man—all point to the life which God brings through his Son.
But this is not just life in this world, nor it is just life in the next; it is life to the fullest in both. Martha already believes in the Jewish teaching that all people will rise on the Last Day. But God’s purpose in Christ moves beyond that miracle. In another of his powerful I am statements, Jesus reveals himself to be the resurrection and the life, not just on the Last Day but today. On this day, God will give Lazarus his life back as a sign that God gives all people life through Jesus Christ. Martha, do you believe this? Like us, Martha does believe it, and like us, Martha does not really get it. When she tells Mary that Jesus is here, they cry together because they believe that Jesus is too late. We know that you will raise up our brother on the Last Day because you have that special kind of power, but today, you are too late. And since that is the case, leave him alone. He is dead for four days; he stinks. No one has as yet risen to the level of faith to which Jesus is calling them. I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?
As you have heard me say before, there is a chasm between intellectual assent of a philosophical proposition and true faith. It is one thing to say we like the idea that God will raise all people from the dead on the Last Day. It is another thing to believe that the crucifixion and raising of Jesus from the dead frees the whole world from the power of death, living life to the fullest. Every memorial service I conduct, I repeat Jesus’ words, I am the resurrection and the life, to bring comfort. But those words can be difficult to really believe when one is burying one’s heart with someone they love. It was no different for Mary and Martha. Lazarus is stinking in the grave, and life, in general, stinks. I don’t understand what you mean when you say that, Lord.
Jesus weeps. He weeps for Lazarus. He weeps for Mary and Martha. He weeps in deep anger and frustration that his efforts to glorify God lead to such hostility by the Jewish leaders. And he weeps because of the danger he puts his followers in by giving himself unconditionally for the life of the world. John rarely portrays Jesus as vulnerable as he is here. But Jesus himself experiences firsthand what it is to have the utterly human experience of a life that stinketh in profound grief.
And yet, Jesus is also fully God, and from here events unfold according to divine will, not human limitations. Martha will tell Jesus that he has no authority over a body dead behind a stone for four days. Nothing on earth can overcome such a stench. But now the hour is coming when the glory of the Father will glorify the Son. Jesus prays publically that this demonstration of God’s glory will bring people to faith, for the hour is coming when all choices must be made. And so, with a loud prayer, Jesus calls the dead man to come forth from the tomb, which he does, still wrapped in his burial shroud. Jesus, in complete authority, commands them to unbind him and let him go. Release him from the captivity of death itself, a power that cannot withstand the power of the Father in Heaven. Now do you believe?
How often do we miss the glory of God because we are afraid of a stinking mess? Life is messy and death is beyond the pale, so we do our best to control the conditions of both. But in so doing we continually hit the brick wall of human limitations. But here is the paradox of Christ’s promise—only in the dying are we raised to new life. Only in the labor is the baby born. Only in the draining of the abscess does the healing take place. Only through the stench does the fresh air of life rise up and restore us for all eternity. This is true in the huge things of life and death, and it is true in normal everyday things.
Christ raised Lazarus as a sign of the promise that, as he is crucified and raised up by the power of his Father in heaven, we also are crucified and raised up with him. This is the central tenet of our faith as followers of Jesus Christ. All believers who die are raised up to eternal life with him. Now more than ever, we claim that promise and believe it. To God be the glory. Amen.